by Ryan Lanz
I love the show Survivor. I know, I know. It’s a guilty pleasure.
I’m a bit of a junkie for the show. I’ve probably seen 90% of the episodes since it started 57 years ago (ish). May Jeff Probst never retire. I was wondering to myself why I love the show so much. Sure, the scenery is beautiful, and the challenges are fun to watch. But plenty of shows have that sort of thing. Then it hit me: the conflict. Survivor is rife with conflict. People are selected from different walks of life and put together as strangers in a high stress environment. Shenanigans ensue.
We’ve all heard writing advice to search for the conflict in a scene. But what does that really mean? How many of you actually sat down to think about why conflict is so crucial to a story? Heck, conflict is essential even down to a scene-by-scene basis. We’ll visit that later in this post.
So, let’s start by breaking down the different types of conflict. This is by no means an exhaustive list, but it gets us going.
- Setting/Situational Conflict
- Character Conflict (to each other)
- Internal Conflict
Let’s take a gander through each.
A conflict involving setting is a background type situation that causes natural conflict. I put an emphasis on the word natural, because we’ve all read books where you can feel the author’s hand moving the pieces around to set up altercations.
To give an overall example of a setting conflict, a king falls from grace and has to work his way back up from the bottom of society to win back his crown. Imagine the situational conflict there. The king will likely have a culture shock of going without the fancy lifestyle he was accustomed to. He’ll have to learn a new set of skills in order to adapt.
Borrowing the above example, the former king also will need to associate himself with people he normally wouldn’t. To exacerbate the conflict, I would write in characters that are the opposite of the king’s lofty personality. It could be a shifty, yet endearing, pick-pocket who promises to sneak him back into the palace for the right price. It could be a merchant who bears a grudge to the king because he was denied a business permit earlier that year. Usually, by picking opposites in personalities and goals, the conflict cream rises to the top.
I have to admit, this one is my personal favorite. There’s just so much to dig into here. Again, with the above example, I would probably have the king do things that makes him question himself. It could be him having to steal to eat for the first time, then wrestling with the moral consequences. It could be that the king has some retrospection about his rule and the things that he should have done differently. Rolling this out is a fine line; having too much brooding will drag down the pacing. Try to sprinkle this in rather than having a solid section on it.
For another example, in my current fantasy book the protagonist harms someone in self-defense to save his own life. Even though he knows that he probably would have died if he hadn’t, he still wrestles with the guilt of hurting someone. That makes him endearing to the reader for showing his gentle soul, yet also shows an interesting conflict.
Now that we’ve discussed the different types, let’s talk about why we like conflict as a reader/viewing society. This is where we delve into the realm of my opinion. I would venture to say we enjoy observing conflict for five reasons:
- It makes us feel that our own problems aren’t so bad (compared to having to face a smoke monster on a mysterious island or experiencing battle royal with a dozen other teenagers trying to kill you)
- It walks us through conflict to help us learn how to problem solve in our own lives
- It’s plain entertaining
- Because we want to see that the reward cost something
- We want to see that the struggles we have in our own lives will have a payoff
Some of those might be more of a stretch than others, but there you are. You might be thinking there’s nothing to learn from, say, the Lord of the Rings as it relates to your own personal life. Consider this, though. In Lord of the Rings, there was/were:
- Persecution and bias based on race (elves, dwarves, orcs, etc.)
- Personal struggles without immediate payoffs
- Close friends lost
- Love realized
- Unlikely duos becoming friends
- Feeling alone and lost
When you think about it in that context (and when you peel back the masks, make-up, and chain mail), we see how the conflict becomes suddenly very relatable.
As you’re writing conflict into your scene, keep in mind why you’re doing so. Think about the ripple effect of every added character in order to capitalize on the natural conflict. It will keep your readers coming back for more. What other types of conflict can you think of? Leave them in the comments below.
Ryan Lanz is an avid blogger and author of The Idea Factory: 1,000 Story Ideas and Writing Prompts to Find Your Next Bestseller. You can also find him on Twitter, Facebook, and Tumblr.